Russian Progress Launch Restores Critical Cargo Lifeline to Space Station

Blastoff of the Russian Progress 60 resupply ship to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3, 2015. Credit: Roscosmos
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A sigh of relief was heard worldwide with today’s (July 3) successful launch to orbit of the unmanned Progress 60 cargo freighter atop a Soyuz-U booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, signifying the restoration of Russia’s critical cargo lifeline to the International Space Station (ISS), some two months after the devastating launch failure of the prior Progress 59 spaceship on April 28.

Friday’s triumphant Progress launch also comes just five days after America’s cargo deliveries to the ISS were put on hold following the spectacular failure of a commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from the Florida Space Coast on Sunday, June 28, carrying the unpiloted SpaceX Dragon CRS-7 which broke up in flight.

The Progress 60 resupply ship, also known as Progress M-28M, was loaded with over three tons of food, fuel, oxygen, science experiments, water and supplies on a crucial mission for the International Space Station crew to keep them stocked with urgently needed life support provisions and science experiments in the wake of the twin launch failures in April and June.

The Soyuz-U carrier rocket launched Progress into blue skies at 10:55 a.m. local time in Baikonur (12:55 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The launch was webcast live on NASA TV.

“Everything went by the book,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias during the webcast. “Everything is nominal.”

The ISS Progress 60 resupply ship streak to orbit after on time launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3, 2015. Credit: Roscosmos
The ISS Progress 60 resupply ship streak to orbit after on time launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3, 2015. Credit: Roscosmos

The International Space Station was flying about 249 miles over northwestern Sudan, near the border with Egypt and Libya, at the moment of liftoff. Note: See an exquisite photo of the Egyptian pyramid photographed from the ISS in my recent story – here.

After successfully separating from the third stage Progress reach its preliminary orbit less than 10 minutes after launch from Baikonur and deployed its solar arrays and navigational antennas as planned.

Live video was received from Progress after achieving orbit showing a beautiful view of the Earth below.

A camera from the Progress spacecraft shows the Earth below as it begins its two day trip to the space station. Credit: NASA TV
A camera from the Progress spacecraft shows the Earth below as it begins its two day trip to the space station. Credit: NASA TV

A two day chase of 34 orbits of Earth over the next two days will bring the cargo craft to the vicinity of the station for a planned docking to the Russian segment of the orbiting laboratory at 3:13 a.m. Sunday, July 5.

NASA TV will provide live coverage of the arrival and docking operation to the Pirs Docking Compartment starting at 2:30 a.m. EDT on Sunday, July 5.

Watch live on NASA TV and online at http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka are currently living and working aboard the station as the initial trio of Expedition 44 following the safe departure and landing of the three person Expedition 43 crew in mid June.

Kelly and Kornienko comprise the first ever 1 Year Crew to serve aboard the ISS and are about three months into their stay in space.

In the span of just the past eight months, three launches of unmanned cargo delivery runs to the space station have failed involving both American and Russian rockets.

The cargo ships function as a railroad to space and function as the lifeline to keep the station continuously crewed and functioning. Without periodic resupply by visiting vehicles from the partner nations the ISS cannot continue to operate.

The Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus Orb 3 mission exploded in a massive and frightening fireball on October 28, 2014 which I witnessed from the press site from NASA Wallops in Virginia.

The Russian Soyuz/Progress 59 mission failed after the cargo vessel separated from the Soyuz booster rockets third stage and spun wildly out of control on April 28, 2015 and eventually crashed weeks later during an uncontrolled plummet back to Earth over the ocean on May 8. The loss was traced to an abnormal third stage separation event.

Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, switched this Progress vehicle to an older version of the Soyuz rocket which had a different third stage configuration that was not involved in the April failure.

The ISS Progress 60 resupply ship launches on time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: NASA TV
The ISS Progress 60 resupply ship launches on time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: NASA TV

Russian officials decided to move up the launch by about a month from its originally planned launch date in August in order to restock the station crew with critically needed supplies as soon as practical.

Following Sundays SpaceX cargo launch failure, the over 6100 pounds of new supplies on Progress are urgently needed more than ever before. Loaded aboard are 1,146 pounds (520 kg) of propellant, 105 pounds (48 kg) of oxygen, 926 pounds (420 kg) of water and 3,071 pounds (1393 kg) pounds of crew supplies, provisions, research equipment, science experiments, tools and spare parts and parcels for the crew.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo spaceship dazzled in the moments after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 but were soon doomed to a sudden catastrophic destruction barely two minutes later in the inset photo (left).  Composite image includes up close launch photo taken from pad camera set at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and mid-air explosion photo taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida as rocket was streaking to the International Space Station (ISS) on CRS-7 cargo resupply mission.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo spaceship dazzled in the moments after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 but were soon doomed to a sudden catastrophic destruction barely two minutes later in the inset photo (left). Composite image includes up close launch photo taken from pad camera set at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and mid-air explosion photo taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida as rocket was streaking to the International Space Station (ISS) on CRS-7 cargo resupply mission. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In the wake of the trio of American and Russian launch failures, the crews current enjoy only about four month of supplies reserves compared to the more desirable six months stockpile in case of launch mishaps.

Progress 60 will extend the station supplies by about a month’s time.

The SpaceX CRS-7 Dragon was loaded with over 4,000 pounds (1987 kg) of research experiments, an EVA spacesuit, water filtration equipment, spare parts, gear, computer equipment, high pressure tanks of oxygen and nitrogen supply gases, food, water and clothing for the astronaut and cosmonaut crews comprising Expeditions 44 and 45.

These included critical materials for the science and research investigations for the first ever one-year crew to serve aboard the ISS – comprising Kelly and Kornienko.

The Dragon was also packed with the first of two new International Docking Adapters (IDS’s) required for the new commercial crew space taxis to dock at the ISS starting in 2017.

The three cargo launch failures so close together are unprecedented in the history of the ISS program over the past two decades.

The next cargo ship now slated to launch is the Japanese HTV-5 on August 16.

Antares descended into hellish inferno after first stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares descended into hellish inferno after first stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Watch Today’s Progress Launch and Docking Live

Live streaming video by Ustream
The first launch of February 2014 worldwide is about to light up the night skies over the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, with the launch of a Soyuz-U rocket carrying the uncrewed Progress M-22M spacecraft to the ISS. You can watch the launch live here, as well as the “fast-track” docking just 5 hours and 58 minutes later.

Progress will be carrying 2.8 tons of fuel, oxygen, supplies and experiments to the International Space Station. This will be the 54th Progress flight to the International Space Station since the first Progress launch to the station in 2000.

The launch is set to occur at 16:23:33 Universal Time or 11:23:33 AM EST. NASA TV will go live with the launch at 11:00 AM EST/16:00 UT, and TV Tsenki will also broadcast video from the pad just prior, though the broadcast frequently its sans audio.

Progress is also on a four orbit “fast-track” launch headed to the International Space Station. Tune in to NASA TV at 5:00 PM EST/22:00 UT later today, and you’ll be able to catch the docking of the Progress spacecraft to the Pirs module of the ISS as well. Docking is set to occur at 5:25 PM EST/22:25 UT over the North Atlantic Ocean.

Fun fact: Neil Armstrong still holds the record for the fastest journey from liftoff to docking at 5 hours and 33 minutes during Gemini 8 way back in 1966.

Update: ISS Astros indeed report during the live broadcast of the launch of Progress M-22M on NASA TV today of catching sight of the first stage of the Soyuz-U at liftoff… we’ll post any pics if and when they surface.

Progress M-20M undocked from the same Pirs compartment earlier this week on Monday in order to make way for the arrival of Progress M-22M. Progress M-20M is still in orbit, and is slated for a fiery destructive reentry on February 11th over the South Pacific. The long span between undocking and reentry for Progress M-20M allows for experiments on the spacecraft’s attitude control system to be carried out by ground controllers.

...and LIFTOFF of the Soyuz-U rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with Progress M-22M! Credit: NASA TV.
…and LIFTOFF of the Soyuz-U rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome with Progress M-22M! Credit: NASA TV.

This also marks the start of a busy 2014 season at the International Space Station. On March 1st, SpaceX continues its contract to resupply the station with the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket with its fifth Dragon capsule making its third operational delivery to the station on CRS-3. Then later in March on the 12th, Expedition 38 crewmembers Oleg Kotov, Sergey Ryazansky, and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins will return to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-10M. The next crewed launch headed to the International Space Station are Expedition 39 cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov, Oleg Artemyev, and NASA astronaut Steve Swanson launching from Baikonur on March 26th on Soyuz TMA-12M.

Progress M-22M is ultimately slated to undock from the Pirs module of the International Space Station on April 7th for a destructive reentry over the South Pacific.  Three additional SpaceX launches utilizing Dragon capsules and two more launches of Orbital Science’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft will be conducted in 2014, as well as visits by the European Space Agency’s ATV-5 Georges Lemaitre in June and JAXA’s HTV-5 in July.

And another launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome is coming right up on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, with the liftoff of an International Launch Services Proton rocket carrying the Turksat 4A satellite. The launch will be carried live via the ILS website and is slated for 21:09 UT/4:09 PM EST.

And though these are all standard resupply missions to the International Space Station, spaceflight is anything but routine. Avid trackers of live launches will remember the Progress M-12M spacecraft that was lost shortly after launch back in August 2011. To date, Progress M-12M was the only supply craft that failed to reach the International Space Station. Progress M-12M impacted in the Choisk Region of Russia’s Altai Republic in the Far East. The RD-0110 engine began to experience a flight anomaly just over five minutes after launch, causing the flight computer to execute a termination of thrust. Progress M-12M was the first loss of a Progress spacecraft since the start of the program in 1978. Ironically, Progress M-12M carried among its cargo manifest 10 paintings made by the son of Russian artist Alesandr Shilov said to be for “the psychological support of the crew…” There’s also a small cottage industry in Siberia east of Russian launch sites in salvaging rocket parts and boosters for scrap metal as they plummet from the sky.

Tonight's passage of Progress M-20M and the International Space Station over the US SE and the Caribbean region. Created by the author using Orbitron.
Tonight’s passage of Progress M-20M and the International Space Station over the US SE and the Caribbean region. Created by the author using Orbitron.

It’s also possible to spot these spacecraft from your backyard as they arrive and depart from the International Space Station. We caught sight of Progress M-20M just last night, passing very near the waxing crescent Moon. Progress was about magnitude +1 when directly overhead, and was about 9 minutes ahead of the International Space Station. We’ve seen the Dragon, HTV, ATV spacecraft, as well as the U.S. Space Shuttle shortly after undocking from the International Space Station when it was in service. In fact, there’s a series of good passes of the ISS at dusk over the next few evenings for the southeastern United States, including a pass at ~6:58 PM EST tonight. Progress M-20M should be about 20 minutes ahead of the station at this point, assuming, of course, it hasn’t maneuvered in its orbit as a part of ongoing thruster control experiments.

We’ll be checking those final orbital corrections just prior to the pass tonight, as well as tracking the launch and docking of Progress M-22M. Follow us on Twitter (@Astroguyz) for further updates.

Be sure to catch all the action at Baikonur and in low Earth orbit today, both online and overhead!